The Japanese government has announced its annual guidelines for economic policy: a big change in prospect, since it recommends that companies allow their employees to work only four days a week (instead of five, as required by ‘use). The goal ? Propose a fair balance between private and professional life and revive the economy.
The Japanese are known to be conscientious and hard workers from an early age. As a result, by doing overtime and skipping their days off, employees fall ill, develop burnout and in the worst case, commit suicide or die suddenly from a cardiovascular accident. due to stress and overwork – a phenomenon called karōshi in Japan.
Faced with this observation, the government is considering a radical change in habits, recommending companies to offer three-day weekends to their staff. The COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly not unrelated to this decision. The idea was also discussed at the end of January, brought by Kuniko Inoguchi, member of the Liberal Democratic Party in power.
“A necessity rather than a possibility”
A 2016 government study found that one in five Japanese workers was at risk for karoshi, and nearly a quarter of companies required their staff to work more than 80 hours of overtime each month, often unpaid. The result: Several hundred people die each year from heart attacks, strokes or other health problems caused by overwork, while the number of suicides increases.
A law introduced in 2019 limits overtime to 100 hours per month, and companies breaking this rule face a fine. But in practice, this law has certain shortcomings which do not really improve the situation. For Teruo Sakurada, professor of commerce at Hannan University in Osaka, it is urgent to improve the working conditions of employees: “ I would say rather than being a possibility in business it should be a necessity », He declares.
This major cultural change would indeed derive many benefits. As the promoter of the project, Kuniko Inoguchi stressed that reducing the working time to four days a week would not only reduce the risk of karoshi, but also offer employees the opportunity to spend time with their families and their relatives, to pursue studies, to take advantage of other professional opportunities and above all, to contribute to the national economy by consuming.
Likewise, having more free time in prospect may encourage more couples to have more children in a country where the population is increasingly older. The aging population is also starting to cause a labor shortage in the country. While Japan currently has 126.5 million people, it could only have 83 million by the end of this century if the trend continues.
Aging traditions, but deeply rooted
It is clear that the exceptional measures put in place during the pandemic (remote work, new communication tools, more flexible hours) have been particularly beneficial. ” Businesses have their employees work from home or remotely, in satellite offices or at their clients’ homes, which can be much more convenient and productive for many Says Martin Schulz, chief policy economist at the Global Market Intelligence Unit at Fujitsu Ltd. ” Employees have shown they don’t need to be physically in the office five days a week and late into the night to stay productive He adds.
Some companies have thus abandoned their old tools and working methods – such as the fax machine or the hanko, an official seal that must be applied physically – in favor of more agile technologies. It was therefore the perfect time to try to bring about a change in companies with ancestral practices.
By switching to more teleworking, Fujitsu reduced the office space of its head office in Tokyo by 50%. Others have also opted for a new mode of operation: Microsoft Japan and the Mizuho Financial group have both set up programs offering their employees the possibility of choosing a day of rest during the week. Fast Retailing, the parent company of clothing store chain Uniqlo, introduced the four-day week in 2015. “ We wanted to keep our best talent. […] We knew we had to make Uniqlo a worker friendly environment Company spokesperson Pei-chi Tung said.
This option proved to be very popular, but a large majority of employees preferred to keep the traditional five-day week – the reduction in working time is obviously accompanied by a reduction in wages, which may not be manageable for everyone. However, everyone recognizes that it is rather pleasant to know that this way of working is possible if any event in life were to change the situation (birth, loved one ill, professional training, etc.).
Finally, experts believe that the most difficult to convince will be the older executives, who remain anchored in traditional values which have certainly made Japan a great economic power, but which are now proving less effective. In addition, assets opting for the four-day week will invariably be accused of showing less involvement and dedication to their work and could potentially come under pressure from opponents.